We are turning our beautiful Ocean into a plastic soup.
About 8 million tonnes of plastic is estimated to enter the Ocean each year, and if business continues as usual we face a future with more plastic in the Ocean than fish by 2050. Our plastic addiction and waste mismanagement is condemning countless marine birds and animals to death by entanglement or poisoning, and even leading to chemical contamination of the fish we eat. From the Arctic to the Antarctic, no corner of the Ocean is untouched by this global scourge. The vast swirls of plastic rubbish visible on the sea surface – horrifying as they are – represent just the tip of the iceberg. What lies beneath are the masses of microbeads and broken-down particles of plastic that are easily ingested by sea creatures, and impossible to remove. The urgently needed solution calls for a combination of enhanced awareness, reduced plastic use, and massively improved waste management.
- Plastic wraps our food and houses our technology. It is a remarkable substance that has contributed to advances in health care and for many applications has multiple advantages. But, disposable consumer goods end up – often after a single, fleeting use – in land-fills, littering our landscapes, and polluting our Ocean. 80% of marine plastic pollution originates from land-based sources.
- Without action the annual flow of plastic into the ocean will nearly triple by 2040, to 29 million metric tons per year. Current government and industry commitments are likely to reduce this figure by only 7 percent.
- If the rate at which plastic debris enters the Ocean goes unchecked, it is possible that the Ocean could contain 1 tonne of plastic for every 3 tonnes of fish by 2025, and more plastic than fish by 2050.
- The United States is the world’s biggest producer of plastic waste and the country’s plastic waste inputs to the coastal environment are among the highest in the world due to illegal dumping, littering and the export of waste to other countries where it is mismanaged.
- Indonesia and India are ranked as the top two contributors to plastic waste entering the Ocean from mismanaged waste.
- The plastic debris floating on the Ocean surface accounts for only 1% of all the plastic trash dumped into the sea; the other 99% is submerged beneath the surface.
- Plastic debris has been found throughout the Ocean, from the Arctic and Antarctic to tropical coral reefs and seagrass meadows. Plastic has even reached the world’s deepest Ocean trench, with a single-use plastic bag found at 10,898 m
- This includes the billions of tiny pieces of plastic, called microbeads, that are often added to products such as toothpaste, face wash and abrasive cleaners, and are small enough to easily pass through water filtration and sewage treatment systems to end up polluting the Ocean.
- Biodegradable plastics (particularly those made from plants) are promising alternatives to conventional plastics under the right conditions, but these conditions are generally not found in the natural environment, and especially not in the Ocean. They are also energy intensive and expensive to produce, and have the potential to make the problem of littering worse by encouraging people to think that it is okay to throw them away rather than consider them a valuable resource. Furthermore, even in ideal conditions, biodegradability does not resolve critical issues such as entanglement, or ingestion by marine animals.
- Biodegradable plastics have also been found to alter carbon and nitrogen cycles in marine sediments, which could affect the carbon sequestration of coastal ecosystems and compromise their mitigation capacity against climate change as their production increases.
- Plastic in the Ocean has a vast and detrimental impact on Ocean wildlife and habitats and is found in every corner of the Ocean, from the Arctic to the Antarctic.
- Small pieces of plastic are eaten by fish, turtles and seabirds, often resulting in their death. Animals and birds can also become tangled up in plastic debris, leading to serious injuries and fatalities.
- Over time, plastic material does not bio-degrade, but breaks down into tiny particles known as microplastics commonly defined as less than 5 mm in diameter. These tiny plastics may be eaten by small marine animals and so enter the food chain where they can be transferred to apex predators, including sharks.
- A recent review of research conducted to-date has revealed that plastic ingestion by marine fish is widespread, including amongst commercially fished species, and the problem is only getting worse.
- Plastics are also accumulating in marine habitats including the sediments of seagrass meadows and mangroves, Antarctic sea ice and even coral reefs, with corals choosing to eat microplastics over their natural food.
- The deep sea is a major global plastic sink, with 14 million tonnes of microplastics estimated to be on the seafloor. That’s 35 times more than the estimated weight of plastic on the Ocean’s surface.
- Plastic debris often contains chemicals added during manufacture that can absorb and concentrate contaminants such as pesticides, heavy metals and persistent organic pollutants (e.g. polychlorinated biphenyls or PCBs).
- This pollution is extremely difficult to remove from the environment or trace back to its source.
- A growing body of scientific research and evidence suggests that these harmful substances can transfer into the tissue of aquatic species – such as fish – that are consumed by humans.
- Marine plastics are also emerging as an important vector for the spread of invasive species and pathogens. Plastic debris has been found to transport a wide range of marine organisms across the Ocean, facilitating biological invasions of non-indigenous species which can have adverse impacts on native biodiversity and alter ecosystem functioning.
What needs to happen?
- Urgent and coordinated action is needed to reverse the increasing quantities of plastic pollution entering the Ocean. A recent analysis found that implementing all feasible interventions using current knowledge and technologies could reduce plastic pollution by 78% compared to a “business as usual” scenario. This would require major changes to the plastic system, resulting in 11% less virgin plastic being produced by 2040.
- Stemming the tide of plastics entering the Ocean will require a combination of approaches, including limiting plastic use, substituting plastic with other materials where appropriate, improving and expanding waste collection, infrastructure, and management, and expanding recycling, particularly in the countries where most of the plastic originates.
- In order to achieve a 78% reduction in plastic waste several challenges need to be overcome including connecting over a million additional households to waste collection services every week between 2020 and 2040; dealing with mismanaged plastic waste and addressing data gaps to better understand the effects of consumer, corporate and policy actions on solving the plastic pollution problem.
- There are governments and organizations working to reduce the presence of plastic microbeads and plastics bags around the world. However, even if society were to ban all plastic bags, for example, that would only account for roughly 1% of total plastic film production.
- We must transition away from a linear (make, use, dispose) economy towards a circular economy where resources, such as plastics, are used, recovered and reused over and over again, instead of heading directly to the landfill or the Ocean.
- We all also need to take personal responsibility and significantly limit our use of plastic. For example, we can carry a reusable water bottle, bring our own cloth bag or other reusable bag when shopping, buy second-hand products, dramatically cut down our consumption of single-use plastic such as food contained in plastic packaging or plastic straws in our take-away drinks, and make sure we recycle whenever possible.
- The most effective way to have less plastic in the Ocean is to use less plastic in the first place.
- A global treaty on plastic pollution is currently being discussed which would set out global goals and binding targets, similar to the Paris Agreement on Climate Change. More than two thirds of the UN member states have officially declared they are open to considering a new global agreement on plastic pollution.
- On the 1st January 2021 new international rules on the trade in plastic waste came into effect. An amendment to the Basel convention, the new rules will prevent wealthy nations exporting their plastic waste to developing countries such as Malaysia and Vietnam. It is hoped that by making the trade in plastic waste more transparent, more plastic will be recycled in the long term, resulting in less plastic ending up in the Ocean.